Americans are noted our self-confidence—but put a British accent in front of us, and we feel weak-kneed and inadequate. British accents open doors around here. There’s no use pretending they don’t. We can scoff and sneer (and of course, you and I would never fall for it ourselves!), but we’ve seen it in action.
It doesn’t even need to be a posh accent. I’ve heard regional dialects located south of pre-transformation Eliza Dolittle that nonetheless worked magic on besotted American listeners, who treated every word as a pearl of sophistication and wisdom.
Something similar goes for playwrights, too. Case in point: David Hare. To be fair, Hare is a skilled craftsman whose best works (Amy’s View is a good example) are cunningly engineered star vehicles that keep audiences on their toes, and—every bit as important—provide actors with maximum opportunities to glitter.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of writing, which in fact has a long and honorable tradition. But it puts Hare properly in the company of Yasmina Reza, Maxwell Anderson, or Kander and Ebb. Yet here in the U.S., Hare has attained a reputation for brilliance and intellectual rigor that places him alongside Pinter (a Nobel prize winner) and Stoppard.
Sure enough, Lantern Theater is promoting their production of Hare’s The Vertical Hour with a glowing quote from The Guardian (“a rich, intellectually gripping play”), and by emphasizing its grounding in issues related to the Iraq war, which was very much ongoing in 2006, when the play had its world premiere on Broadway. (Lantern’s production is Philadelphia’s first.)
But although program notes include pages of thoughtful dramaturgy on the war and its timeline, I would argue that Iraq is not really the point of Vertical Hour. Like other Hare plays, the political and cultural commentary is ultimately filler, designed to seduce us into thinking there’s more here than there actually is.
If you listen carefully, you’ll discover this in a notable exchange early on in Vertical Hour. Sitting in an English house garden, Oliver Lucas, a distinguished, sexy older physician (played in Lantern’s production by Joe Guzmán), converses with Nadia Blye (Geneviève Perrier), a Yale professor of Political Science and former from-the-trenches reporter. Nadia is the source of the Iraq connection, as well as the girlfriend of Oliver’s son, Philip (Marc LeVasseur).
But I digress. Anyway, Oliver asks Nadia to define terrorism—you know, as one does over coffee. In turn, Nadia replies: “Terrorism is an attack on modernity.”
Ding ding ding! This kind of meant-to-dazzle aphorism is a Hare trademark (Nadia later says, “Holding on is easy; it’s letting go we need to learn.”), but here even the playwright realizes it’s inadequate, as Nadia hastily adds, “It’s much more complicated than that…”
She doesn’t explain, though. Aside from a few more prettily-phrased aperçus, Nadia largely drops the topic, as well she should. Because Iraq and war and cultural aggression aren’t the main issues in Vertical Hour.
Can you guess what the play really is about? Hint: you can figure it out from my earlier comments…
Yes—Vertical Hour is largely a melodrama bent around an awkward love triangle—father and son in competition for the same woman. It’s a tough one: the former is too old for her, the latter too feckless… but I’ll bet you figured that out already.
Gripping plays have been built on similar and even thinner premises, but the good ones have been honest enough to put them front and center as melodramas. They’ve also not wallowed in imagined sophistication (Oliver claims the England he loves is defined by “Oh, you know. Blake. Wilfred Owen”), or the kind of simplistic binaries Hare regularly offers to delineate Brits versus Americans. Nothing about this glib posturing strikes me as either wise or sophisticated, but clearly the audience is meant to think it is.
Maybe a superlative production with brilliant actors could vitalize Vertical Hour. On Broadway, it had very celebrated ones, at least: Julianne Moore, Bill Nighy, and Andrew Scott, directed by Sam Mendes.
But Kathryn MacMillan’s production at Lantern, though competently staged, is as superficial as Hare’s script, and on opening night, the cast seemed largely to still be feeling their way into the material.
The show may deepen over time, but I wouldn’t count on it. Where would the actors turn for inspiration? Certainly not to the script.
The Vertical Hour plays through February 16. For more information, visit the Lantern Theater website.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, Theater
Maybe the show in fact needs a shot of Kander and Ebb for gravitas?